What We Can Learn from Sapphic Poetry About the Flexibility of Contemporary Translation Services

by brenton

Often, you find that several different translations of a certain work are considered correct even though they may be quite different.  This is true of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho who was known for her love poetry.  In one translation, one of her poems goes, “once I look at you for a moment, I can’t/ speak any longer,/but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a/subtle fire races inside my skin…”  In another translation, the same poem goes, “So/When I see you, for a moment,/My voice goes,/My tongue freezes.  Fire/Delicate fire, in the flesh.”

Differences in Phrasing, Punctuation and Line Breaks

There are subtle differences between these two translations.  In the first one, the translator writes, “my tongue breaks down” while in the second, the same line is rendered, “my tongue freezes.”  “Subtle fire” becomes “delicate fire” in the second translation.

Of course, one might say that these differences are not great and overall mean the same thing.  However, when you read the entire poem and combine the difference in phrasing along with the differences in punctuation and the different line breaks, you do feel as though you could be reading an entirely different poem.

The Personality of the Writer vs. the Personality of the Translator

At some point or the other, the original Sappho—her feelings and voice—does shine through in both versions.  But added to these is another layer—the personality of the translator.  Since the original punctuation of the poem may not be known, it is up to the translator to decide whether to translate in long sentences or short ones.  Professionals providing translation services make these kinds of decisions everyday based on their reading of a certain text.

The Flexibility of Translation

So although translation may seem, on the outside, to be a very cut and dried process, it is actually a flexible, fluctuating one where the translator must make snap decisions every step of the way.  In order for these decisions to be accurate, the translator must have a lot of experience and an excellent knowledge of both the languages concerned.

Connotations and Denotations

Not only do you need to understand the meanings of words, you also need to be aware that these meanings change over time.  So the connotation of a word might be quite different from the denotation.  Using the word “delicate” instead of “subtle” might make all the difference to a translation and change the meaning of the text.

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